A Bard for the End of the World
The Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men brought to light a little known piece of WWII history, the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) program to save Europe’s cultural heritage from Hitler and Russian treasure hunters. In the midst of a technological war, the salvage of paintings and statuary became a cause worthy of men’s lives. Why? Because art has influence and meaning in human life, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.
In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?” After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.
Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end, from microscopic bacterium to the earth-shattering bomb.
The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse. The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.” He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).
In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society. Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.
Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play. But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.
Lest we consider this purely fictional imagining, I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.” In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.
 Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.
 Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.
 David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.
 Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.